The Struggle For Freedom
Not quite a household name, but an American jazz fusion guitarist whose attitude to improvisation and performing with new technology is starting a quiet revolution. Dan Goldstein gets the lowdown.
For American fusion guitarist David Tom, the most important things in musical life are freedom to improvise, freedom to borrow influences from everywhere, and freedom to exploit technology in new and inventive ways. Is the struggle paying off?
The town of Amityville, in New York State, has only one claim to fame — at least as far as the general public is concerned. A decade or so ago, a book called The Amityville Horror told the supposedly true story of an horrifically haunted house and what it did to its occupants. The story was later revealed to be a hoax, but not before it had been immortalised by a feature-length film, and later by Lovebug Starski's off-beat dance single 'House on the Hill'.
To musicians, though, Amityville's most famous son is one David Torn, a 34-year-old guitarist who describes his music as "jazz/rock/sloppy fusion, sort of a hybrid, really".
Torn's career has been a long if not consistently distinguished one. His notoriety among musicians as an irrepressible mixer of genres is now matched by a reputation as a staunch defender of improvisation, in a world where music is increasingly rigid and pre-planned. And as for the other side of the music industry, the instrument manufacturers know him as a stubborn but ultimately useful figure who knows what he wants from technology, and isn't afraid of shouting his head off if he finds it lacking.
Torn's musical adventure started when he took up the piano at the tender age of six - though that particular stage of the journey didn't last long.
"No. That didn't lead very far, but it was my introduction to my music. My mother was a light-jazz pianist, or was during that time. But when I was in my young teens my mother stopped playing piano regularly, and my father would take me to see North Indian concerts, Ravi Shankar and so on. I loved it, and looking back, it has definitely affected my music to a large degree.
"I started playing guitar when I was 12 or 13. I studied flamenco guitar, but more important, I was in several archetypal high-school psychedelic bands.
"I started thinking about writing my own music almost from day one - mainly because I was playing psychedelic rock, and improvisation was an accepted part of that. I was in a typical garage band, and we did do a lot of extended arrangements of other people's material. It wasn't the way it is now, when we have this Speed King thing where the guitar player is expected to play as many notes as possible in as short a time as possible.
"I was 14 when I first found myself in a recording studio. I remember being extremely nervous - that first experience of Studio Freeze, when you know the red light is on, you know the tape is rolling, and it has to be done correctly. A friend of mine had written a kinda corny Broadway show, and I was playing guitar in the pit band, trying to inject heavy blues and psychedelic rock guitar into that kind of show. I actually have a copy of the recording; somebody I hadn't seen for 10 years sent me a copy right out of the blue, and it sounds, well, terrible."
David Torn throws back his head and laughs, as if a great weight had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders. In the years that followed that first studio venture, however, the guitarist had very little to laugh about. He dropped out of school, lost the will to work, and finally lost the energy to create music. Torn remembers the desolation only too vividly.
"I felt very unfocussed at the time, so I just, well, stopped. I dropped out of school and spent time in various friends' college rooms in the north-east of the US. Then I left the country altogether, and travelled around India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.
"When I came back to the US, I got my high-school diploma in two weeks from an advertisement on the back of a match-book, and got a place at Berklee College of Music on the basis of having that diploma, majoring in performance.
"That didn't work out at all. I knew I wanted to play a lot, and understand music in-depth, and I thought that having a jazz background, really learning that stuff would help. It can help, but it was the wrong environment for me, in that it was very competitive, and it was the time — around 1972 — when people were just obsessed with being the fastest, loudest guitar player, putting the least amount of feeling in one note.
"I didn't cut it at all, so I quit. I was wrong, really, because I had the wrong attitude. I was late for nearly everything, and when you enter an institution, you should agree to accept their rules, at least to a degree. But then again, as Groucho Marx said, 'I would never join a club that would have me as a member'."
Fortunately for Torn, his travels abroad provided sufficient inspiration for him to overcome the disappointment of life at America's most famous music college.
"When I came back from travelling, I wanted to pick up the guitar again right away, so it was definitely an inspiration.
"It coincided with what turned out to be quite an exciting period musically. I was really turned on by the electric Miles Davis stuff, the first electric Herbie Hancock, the early Mahavishnu stuff, and above all by Hendrix, who had died not very long ago, and who was my hero throughout my youth — I was one of those people who would just follow him around."
Torn played pedal steel guitar in what he calls "the farmlands around New York City", acting as a session musician for various regional record labels, to ensure his bills were paid. Meanwhile, some more important artistic endeavours were also being pursued...
"I was invited to join a progressive rock band around '72 or '73, and that was one of the best unsigned bands ever. It was called the Zobo Funk Band, and we spent eight years living together and really working hard together at music, though for the last three years we felt extremely bitter that we had been fucked around by the American record industry, which I now recognise is essentially predatory.
"The difference between the US and UK record industries is that the UK is trend-oriented, and the trends tend to flip over every once in a while, while the US is also trend-oriented, but all the trends tend to revolve around the business of selling stardom, rather than selling music which is meant to move people."
As disillusionment began to set in once again. Torn prepared himself for another change of direction — this time a crucial one.
"Towards the end of the Zobo Funk Band's career, I became involved with a couple of other weirdo bands which allowed more improvisation than I'd been used to in what was essentially an art-rock band. I had a trio, a little duet with somebody, and I got really into this rock and kind of ambient improvisation. I started sending tapes of this stuff to ECM almost right away, because at that time they were putting out some very interesting shit, you know?
"The general attitude is that signal processors are there simply to enhance another instrument - which isn't necessarily the case."
"Quite coincidentally, I got involved with Don Cherry, who was also on ECM at the time, and when Frank Serafine couldn't make Don's tour of England in 1979, the bass player in the band — who lived about 30 miles from me - asked me if I'd like to go along. So I flew over, slept for an hour, learned all the music on-stage, and played with the band, which was called Happy House - though it was later to become the Everyman Band. "We toured with Prince Hammer and Creation Rebel, the reggae band, and the Slits - remember them? All three bands on one bus, it was luxury...
"One day, six to eight months after that tour, the Everyman Band sent a very 'live' tape to Manfred Eicher at ECM. He called us, told us he wanted to do a record of this stuff, and flew to New York to discuss it.
"We ended up making two records for him, The Everyman Band and Without Warning."
Bringing the ECM connection up to date is Cloud About Mercury, an album Torn recorded last year with Bill Bruford on drums, Tony Levin on bass, and Mark Isham on trumpet, flugelhorn and occasional synthesiser.
If you had to place the music under a category, that category would have to be fusion jazz — though you'd be doing no justice to the variety of influences and styles that the disc's six tracks display. Much of the music is improvised, yet for the most part the band play tightly and coherently. Bruford excels on the Simmons-meets-FM MIDI percussion that has become his most recent trademark; Levin's virtuoso Chapman Stick playing acts as a strong and distinctive backbone on which the rest of the music can rest without feeling restricted; and Isham's supreme versatility is characterised by the contrast between his trumpet's uncanny Miles Davis impersonations and his DX7's delicate washes.
But soaring over the top of it is David Torn, his sustaining guitar stretched to new limits by innumerable signal-processing tricks, his playing style switching unexpectedly from classical Japanese to Hillage-esque hippie meandering to contemporary pop Indian. And most un-expected of all, it all works, every note, every chord, every loop, every program, every treatment.
"This is the most acutely focused thing I've done yet", affirms Torn. "There may be a lot of things going on, and that may put people who are used to very simple music out of phase. But it's the least avant-garde thing I've done, and it's also the thing that's made me happiest, without a doubt, though this is only my second record as a band "leader" for ECM.
"This is the beginning of a direction for me, and something I'll be continuing with the same musicians, but with Mick Karn on bass because he was the original player — Tony just stepped in for the first album because Mick wasn't in a position to do it."
Karn was, however, able to play with the quartet when they toured Germany at the start of the year — a tour that included an impressive concert at Frankfurt while the famous Musikmesse was in progress. When are they playing England, then?
"There's the possibility of a tour here in the Spring of 1988", says Torn speculatively, "though before that we're doing an American tour. I'm not a great forward planner, but I can see as far as wanting to pursue this. I'd like more time to do the recording, though, because I did this record in four-and-a-half days, three of recording and one-and-a-half of mixing. I think I have a right to say I'd like a week to make a record."
When he's not leading Messrs Bruford, Karn and Isham, Torn spends his time playing the occasional solo concert, filling in for other musicians at ensemble dates, and acting as session player on a variety of album projects.
It was as a musician in another ensemble (in this case that belonging to Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek) that this writer encountered Torn, when his strikingly original blend of techniques was overshadowed by a bizarre collection of technology he was using to help them along: a heavily modified guitar, played through a heavily modified Lexicon PCM70 digital reverb (complete with "performance MIDI"), with a Yamaha MCS2 MIDI control station acting as interactive go-between.
Strangely enough, it was a Garbarek concert that paved the way for Torn's most recent bout of session playing - as a guest on David Sylvian's new album, due for release later in the year.
"David is a fan of much of what has come out on ECM", says Torn. He'd come to see Jan Garbarek's group play in London at the Logan Hall, about two-and-a-half years ago, and apparently was really knocked out by it.
"I suppose me being in touch with Mick Karn further solidified the connection, and he just called five weeks ago and said he'd really like me to try playing on some tracks on this new album.
"The odd thing about it was that David had planned most of his tracks - except for me. Essentially, he told me he'd brought me in as the wild card, as the unknown quantity. I brought a bunch of favourite instruments. I brought my fake koto (a weather-beaten, gaffer-taped acoustic guitar with makeshift wooden bridge wedged between strings and fretboard), all my looping devices (a modified Lexicon PCM42 with quadrupled memory and three footpedal inputs, plus the modified PCM70), a Steinberger guitar and a lap steel guitar.
"And I just winged it, on four or five tracks. It was a very different way of working from what I'm used to, which is to go into a studio, with a band or alone, to complete a finished master in three days. This was much more relaxed, the negative side of it being that I was extremely jet-lagged, and there was no free day to chill out from that.
"But the surroundings were simply amazing, because David was recording at a place called Studio Miraval, which is in a chateau in the South of France. It belongs to the French pianist, Jacques Loussiet, and it really is something - I had almost a whole turret to myself to live in...''
One thing the Sylvian and Mercury projects have in common, though, is that both involved a certain amount of improvisation. Unlike many session players. Torn has been able to feel almost entirely unrestricted in his choice of playing style, whether he's playing with his own ensemble or somebody else's. It's no accident, either.
"With the Emax arpeggiator, I can set up percussive sounds and bass notes on the keyboard, and use it as an improvising rhythm section."
"I guess I'm on a bit of a crusade here". Torn says, with just a hint of resignation in his voice. "I want to get across the fact that you can achieve a kind of perfection with improvisation. The difference is that the perfection comes from the process of how the music is made, rather than the music itself.
"I think it's a whole area that has been pretty much out of the view of the general public ever since the burnout of the huge, improvised guitar jam in the late '60s.
"But there are so many concerts you could go to now where you could see something totally unexpected happen, and yet it doesn't, because there's been too much staging and too much pre-programming. Especially with electronics now, because instead of the new technology being used as something interactive, something that could introduce a new kind of live performance technique, it's being used as an excuse to replay the record, to regurgitate more programming techniques.
"I'm not putting programming down, because I have use for a lot of it myself with sequencers and so on. But when you've got a bunch of good musicians on stage, and they like to play together, it seems a shame not to let them do that, let them just work something out and see what happens. I think the audience should be allowed to see that, because I think it can have a lot of impact."
Mention of sequencers brings us, inevitably, to the subject of new technology. It's an area few jazz guitarists have ventured into with any enthusiasm, yet David Torn seems to have a knack not only of making technology sound good, but of making it work well in a way its designers had not intended. Part of the reason for this, it seems, lies in his dissatisfaction with the way many new innovations are packaged.
"I was interested in new technology long before I could actually use it. Which is a sore point, because although things are changing drastically now, electronics remain out of reach for a lot of musicians, and they were out of reach for me for a long time.
"I think that's a shame, because there are a lot of processing devices which really can be viewed as musical instruments, so it's a shame that in America you can buy a decent electric guitar for as little as $200, but you can't buy a decent looping device for anything like that. That's a strange situation, too, because the price of computer memory has gone down so drastically. I'm sure you could make a really excellent looping device for, well, certainly less than $400, complete with synchronisation and sampling.
"But the reason we don't have such a device, I think, is the general attitude that these are outboard devices to enhance the sound of another instrument — which is not necessarily the case."
And if the increased accessibility of new technology in purely financial terms is one thing Torn would like to see, increased musical accessibility is also high on the agenda of Things That Need To Be Done.
"Yes. For me there are two key words. One is 'access', which is tied up with money. The second is 'interaction', because there has to be a more thorough approach to live interaction with things like looping devices, sequencers and samplers, and possibly even audio tape recording. If there was that greater focus on interaction, it would drastically affect the way musicians use the stuff, and therefore possibly really take music in a new direction, which I don't think all this technology has really done yet.
"I don't think you can blame the technology for musical stagnation or revivalism, because there has to be a balance between acoustic and electronic instruments anyway. But I do think that the increased acceptance of technology has caused further standardisation and industrialisation of the sounds that we hear. And if there's one thing I hate, it's standardisation.
"Sequencers especially have got to be made more interactive. I want to be able to do with a box what you can do with a lot of the hip software that's becoming available now for the Mac and Atari ST — a lot of those improvisational features. I mean, the Yamaha QX1 is this enormous monster sequencer, and you can't really jam with it live. Too many dedicated sequencers now restrict you to recording everything track by track, which assumes that you already have your music worked out. And what I'm afraid of is that, if these boxes don't change, we'll get into the same situation with audio recording that we're in with MIDI data now: lots of people playing pre-recorded samples of songs from hard disk or whatever, which is basically just going back to the backing-tape idea.
"And it's not only for performance that I'm interested in making sequencers more interactive. I mean, randomisation is one of the great composing tools. The manipulation of audio data or MIDI data in a mixdown, for example, is something that really excites me. You can take one of these PCM 70s, or even an SPX90, and if you've got enough MIDI controllers, you can play them in real-time and produce any number of reverb effects during a mixdown.
"...But the fact remains that it should be easy for me to plug a DX7IIFD into a QX1, play a phrase, and then decide that phrase should be the basis for a whole sequence. I should be able to hit Record with my foot, play something, hit Stop with my foot, and then have that pattern repeating back at me over and over. That's not a difficult thing to do in software terms, but the major manufacturers just don't seem to be focussing on it. They're designing their sequencers to be big, efficient backing bands, and I hate that."
Another thing Torn hates, or at least can't see himself getting interested in for a while, is controlling synths and sampled sounds from a guitar.
"At the moment I can be critical of it because it's financially not feasible for me to get into. I can look at the negative side of it, which is that with every one of these MIDI guitars, you've got some kind of trade-off between accessibility of new sounds on the one hand, and technique and nuance on the other.
"The best-feeling instrument that I have played so far is the Stepp guitar, no doubt about that, though I have high hopes for the Beetle sonar system.
"But right now, there are other things I'm getting into. I bought a sampler, the Emax, and I've got addicted to the arpeggiator - which most people hate - because it's a fantastic improvisational tool, especially in the context of me playing solo. I can set up a number of percussive sounds and bass notes on the keyboard and use it as a kind of improvising rhythm section. You can do so many things with it: you can specify repeats and harmonisations on any key, the number of repeats, the direction of the arpeggio, and simultaneous strikes on one key.
"Everything's set up in beats per minute and whether the division is a quarter-note or an eighth-note or whatever, and I'm especially excited about the Cruise Control feature. It means that if the tempo is set at 128 beats per minute, and the rhythm is four quarter-notes, and I extend the arpeggio to include five notes, the five notes will then fit into the same measure as the four did - that's an interesting thing to muck around with rhythmically."
And there we must close. Not because David Torn ran out of things to say, but because the rest of our conversation revolved around a top-secret signal-processing machine (codename: Mickey X) which Torn has had a hand in designing, and which a major US manufacturer is considering putting into production.
Let's hope that, unlike The Amityville Horror, this particular story turns out to be fact, not fiction.
Interview by Dan Goldstein